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Vivid new photos give you a rare look at the South China Sea islands that a top US commander says China has fully militarized

Business Insider logo Business Insider 12/26/2022 insider@insider.com (Michael Peck)
Buildings and structures on the artificial island built by China at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images © Ezra Acayan/Getty Images Buildings and structures on the artificial island built by China at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images
  • China has turned reefs and islands in the South China Sea into full-fledged military bases.
  • Photos taken in October show those bases in great detail, revealing Beijing's forces and facilities.
  • US officials warn that the bases are part of China's plans to project power beyond its shores.

Want to see what China's island bases in the South China Sea look like? Take a look at some of the startling images taken by Getty Images photographer Ezra Acayan in October.

They show airfields, radar installations, and military aircraft and warships stationed in the Spratly Islands, which are about 400 miles from the Chinese coast. Beijing has used both natural and artificial islands to build up its military capabilities in the area.

"The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores," Adm. John Aquilino, head of US Indo-Pacific Command, warned in March, referring to the country's official name, the People's Republic of China.

From those bases, Chinese forces "can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems," such as anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, Aquilino told the Associated Press at the time, calling the islands fully militarized.

Island airbases

An airfield, buildings, and structures on the artificial island built by China at Subi Reef on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images © Ezra Acayan/Getty Images An airfield, buildings, and structures on the artificial island built by China at Subi Reef on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

This photo shows an airfield on Subi Reef, which China claimed in 1988 and has built up to create an artificial island large enough to accommodate military installations.

A double runway, hangars, and multi-story administrative buildings are all clearly visible.

Missile boats and anti-ship missiles

Buildings and structures on the artificial island built by China at Mischief Reef on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images © Ezra Acayan/Getty Images Buildings and structures on the artificial island built by China at Mischief Reef on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

This photo of Mischief Reef shows Chinese Type 022 Houbei-class fast attack boats, which are catamarans armed with YJ-83 anti-ship missiles.

Also visible on shore is what might be covered launchers for land-based missiles. Tom Shugart, a naval expert at the Center for a New American Security, told The Telegraph that garages facing the sea could house "angled cruise missile launchers."

Gun emplacements on Cuarteron Reef

Buildings and structures on the artificial island built by China at Cuarteron Reef on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images © Ezra Acayan/Getty Images Buildings and structures on the artificial island built by China at Cuarteron Reef on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

In 2016, observers detected gun emplacements on Cuarteron Reef. One of Acayan's photos shows these weapons stations in greater detail.

You can see several tiered towers, with what analysts have identified as 76 mm naval guns visible on the lower two levels. Above the guns is what could be a gun director, and above them all is a large dome likely housing some kind of radar.

Chinese airborne radar aircraft on runway

A KJ-500 next to buildings and structures on the artificial island built by China at Fiery Cross Reef on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images © Ezra Acayan/Getty Images A KJ-500 next to buildings and structures on the artificial island built by China at Fiery Cross Reef on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

This photo shows a Chinese KJ-500 airborne early warning aircraft on the runway of Fiery Cross Reef. The KJ-500 is based on the Y-9 transport, China's equivalent to the US's C-130 Hercules.

The presence of a KJ-500 shows the Fiery Cross Reef runways are long enough to handle larger aircraft, while the hangars are big enough to accommodate H-6 bombers.

The KJ-500 "plays a significant role" in China's ability to use long-range weapons, Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, head of US Pacific Air Forces, said this spring, adding that "some of their very long-range air-to-air missiles are aided by that KJ-500."

Port for Chinese warships

An airfield, buildings, and structures on the artificial island at Fiery Cross Reef on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images © Ezra Acayan/Getty Images An airfield, buildings, and structures on the artificial island at Fiery Cross Reef on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

This photo of Fiery Cross Reef shows the semi-enclosed waters and facilities that make the island a useful naval base.

More than 40 vessels of different types appear to be anchored near Fiery Cross, the Associated Press said in March.

These islands have sports fields

An airfield, buildings, and recreational facilities on the artificial island at Fiery Cross Reef on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images © Ezra Acayan/Getty Images An airfield, buildings, and recreational facilities on the artificial island at Fiery Cross Reef on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

What's striking about this photo of Fiery Cross Reef isn't the runway and buildings but rather the sports field, which appears to include a running track and an athletic field.

This suggests a Chinese presence that is significant enough that recreational facilities are needed to maintain troop morale.

The size of the field, which is marked and appears to have light poles, indicates that the garrison is large enough to justify such an amenity.

China's growing reach

An airfield, buildings, and structures on the artificial island at Mischief Reef on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images © Ezra Acayan/Getty Images An airfield, buildings, and structures on the artificial island at Mischief Reef on October 25. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

The Spratly Islands are strategically valuable for China. They enable Beijing to project air and naval power hundreds of miles farther than forces on the Chinese mainland can reach. The bases there also allow China to position forces closer to vital areas, such as the chokepoints between the Indian and Pacific oceans.

China has been willing to use force to maintain control of the Spratlys, which are geographically closer to Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. In 1988, Chinese forces seized Johnson South Reef after battling Vietnamese ships and troops over the disputed island.

The US isn't the only nation concerned by the Chinese bases. Several countries, including Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia, have made claims in the Spratlys and on other specks of land in the South China Sea. (Vietnam accelerated the expansion of its own outposts in the Spratlys in late 2022, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.)

The value of these bases should not be overstated. Their small size, flat and open terrain, and distance from mainland China leaves them vulnerable to bombardment, blockade, or invasion in time of war. Short of war, however, they are a potent reminder of China military reach into one of the world's most important waterways.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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